Government and Real Estate

Kent planning qualifies for FEMA grant

The $708,653 will enable Plainfield Township to buy and remove flood-prone homes.

March 20, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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Kent County FEMA
Plainfield planner Pete Elam said there are probably 150 to 200 homes located in the township’s floodplain. Photo by Jim Gebben

Kent County has had a hazard mitigation plan in effect for years, which is why it qualifies for a $708,653 FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant to be used by Plainfield Township to acquire and remove 15 flood-prone houses along the Grand River.

Jack Stewart, Kent County emergency management coordinator, said a condition for receiving the federal grant is having a FEMA-approved hazard mitigation plan that identifies risks, vulnerabilities and mitigation efforts to deal with potential hazards in the community.

Chief among the natural hazards in West Michigan is the state’s largest river.

The Grand River has flooded many times over the years, with the extreme high water of the 2013 flood resulting in a federal disaster area declaration — the catalyst for the FEMA grant just awarded to Plainfield Township.

Owners of 14 of the targeted homes previously signed a statement indicating an interest in selling their home to the township at 75 percent of the market value prior to the 2013 flood. Several of those homes were too severely damaged to be usable any longer, and one of them is already the property of Plainfield Township, foreclosed on for unpaid taxes after the bank that owned it abandoned it.

Actually, this is the fourth time Plainfield Township has received the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant, according to Pete Elam, a member of the township’s Planning Department and the flood plain manager.

Elam emphasized the program is strictly voluntary for the homeowners, and the funds “cannot be used for imminent domain.” He said there are probably 150 to 200 houses located on the flood plain in Plainfield Township, which is on both sides of the Grand River. The streets where the homes are targeted for removal are Willow Drive, Abrigador Trail, Konkle Drive and Riverbank Avenue.

In addition to paying the homeowner 75 percent of the home’s worth prior to the 2013 flood, the FEMA grant also covers 75 percent of the township’s cost of removing the homes. The township will pay the remaining demolition cost.

The homeowners who decide to take the offer agree to forgo the other 25 percent. Elam said they generally have a couple of years to decide and it is entirely voluntary. The township also covers much of the cost of closing on the real estate transaction, and real estate agents are generally not required.

“This is a valuable tool the township has used to help our residents along the riverfront that have suffered flood damage and find themselves in a situation where they are left with property they can’t sell and they can’t live in,” said Plainfield Township Superintendent Cameron Van Wyngarden.

Elam also said it is “a good option for them — otherwise they would have to try to raise or rehabilitate the house.” Any home damaged more than 25 percent of its market value has to be raised up off the ground above the 100-year flood level.

Elam said some riverfront property owners elect not to have flood insurance.

“You are only required to have flood insurance if you have a federally backed mortgage,” he said.

The cost of required flood insurance is subsidized by the federal government, but Elam said it is “not cheap and it’s going up.” Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy nearly bankrupted the program, he said, and now Congress wants it to be solvent, which means decreasing the subsidies.

The National Flood Insurance Program, which is part of FEMA, states on its website that “everyone lives in a flood zone” — and notes that “most homeowners insurance does not cover flood damage.”

The NFIP is aimed at reducing the impact of flooding on private and public structures by providing “affordable insurance” for property owners and by encouraging communities to adopt and enforce floodplain management regulations. It promotes the purchase of insurance in general and national flood insurance in particular.

NFIP also notes that “federal disaster assistance is usually a loan that must be paid back with interest,” but a $100,000 flood insurance premium costs about $400 a year.

NFIP’s “low-cost Preferred Risk Policy” has premiums starting as low as $129, providing $20,000 insurance on a home and $8,000 on the contents. Preferred Risk Policy premiums on a commercial building starts at $643, providing $50,000 on the building and $50,000 on the contents.

From 2003 to 2012, total national flood insurance claims averaged nearly $4 billion per year, according to NFIP.

In March, FEMA announced it is prepared to review every flood insurance claim filed by victims of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, in response to allegations that some insurers in the NFIP may have denied or rejected claims based on falsified reports.

Approximately 144,000 claims were filed and about 2,200 of them are now in litigation.

After demolition and removal of the Plainfield Township homes, the sites will be back-filled to grade level and plant life allowed to return. Elam said the properties are “deed-restricted” with the township responsible for keeping them as a publicly owned open space “in perpetuity.”

The Greater Grand Rapids Hazard Mitigation Plan is a joint effort between Kent County, Ottawa County and the city of Grand Rapids focused on Grand River flooding. The original plan was approved in 2006, and the revision was approved by FEMA in 2012.

“The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program enables communities to implement critical mitigation measures to reduce the risk of loss of life and property,” said Andrew Velasquez III, FEMA Region V administrator.

“The acquisition and demolition of these homes permanently removes the structures from the floodplain and greatly reduces the financial impact on individuals and the community when future flooding occurs in this area,” he said.

“I strongly encourage our communities to seize the opportunity for hazard mitigation assistance to enhance the safety of Michigan’s citizens,” said Capt. Chris A. Kelenske, deputy state director of Emergency Management and Homeland Security and commander of the Michigan State Police, Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division.

The role of FEMA — Federal Emergency Management Agency — is to create and sustain the nation’s capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards.

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